Hugh Hefner passed on from this life yesterday, at the age of 91. Hefner was, of course, the creator of the iconic Playboy magazine, and considered his magazine to be a catalyst of the sexual revolution in the 1960s. Playboy magazine sought to “overturn the puritanical moral code of middle America.” It made a type of fantasy sexuality readily available to American men who were tired of their real lives, and the status quo – wrapping pornography in a package of witty editorials, and articles from best-selling authors, making it acceptable to the general public.
Cultural commentators use words like “revolution” and “liberation” when talking about Hefner and Playboy, and tributes to his life and work abound. But what they are calling “liberation” is actually one of the oldest forms of exploitation on earth. What Hefner achieved was not making sexuality acceptable, but rather making objectification acceptable.
Women have been a commodity since the beginning of time, traded, bought, and sold. What Hefner accomplished may have seemed revolutionary in what he considered “puritanical middle America,” but he tapped into the most ancient form of exploitation on earth, selling women for profit and pleasure.
I wonder, in a world where women had the financial power that men had in the 1950s, if Playboy would have existed. I think many want to believe that Playboy gives women power, but it really only gives women the limited power that men have allowed them to attain, which is linked to their perceived value as objects of desire.
Christians have historically railed against Hefner and his Playboy brand on moral grounds, opposed to his free and open approach to sexuality. In 2013 Hefner claimed a victory over the conservative view of sex writing, “Americans have rejected these religious fanatics and fought to protect women’s rights, reproductive rights and our right to privacy rather than submit to their Christian view that sex exists for the sole purpose of procreation.”
Hefner was a genius at couching the exploitation of women in terms of liberation, convincing millions of Americans that objectification was equivalent to liberation, and that buying, selling, and using women gives them rights and freedoms. And as I have watched the tributes come rolling in, I am reminded that we are still living this side of the Kingdom of God, waiting for every hill to be made low, and every valley to be raised up.
Hefner was probably right. Christians probably have lost the war on sexual morals. But perhaps that was never the war they were meant to be fighting. Perhaps they were meant to be fighting for true liberation for women, meaningful power for women, social and financial equality for women, and basic respect for women as bearers of the image of God, rather than commodities to be used and sold.
Hugh Hefner was a man with many gifts and talents. He was brilliantly successful. And he sold our country on the worst kind of lie, the kind of lie that looks like truth and freedom. He has left this life, but his legacy remains as a piece of the history of female exploitation that stretches from the beginning of time until now. But the legacy of Christ is eternal, and will make the legacy of Hefner, along with the millennia long exploitation of women, less than a memory. God’s Kingdom come.